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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Blog from Independence Day about ethnography

Independence Day Update

Partly because of my weird life story, I obsessed about “ethnography” for many years. The weirdness was called the Vietnam War. It meant that, as of 1968, I changed from grad student in anthropology to the equivalent of a first lieutenant in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. They sent me to be an anthropologist in a new social science section in a treatment center for narcotics addicts.

In grad school, “ethnography” was the word for what we did. It was taken for granted. You lived in a small village in an isolated place outside of the U.S. and Europe and learned how to speak and act in events that made up that world. Then you wrote a book about it. I’d done that already in South India, working as an undergraduate/apprentice for a professor from my university.

But I’d just been drop-kicked by history into a place that anthropology had little or nothing to do with. I figured, ok, here’s a “place” full of “people” and went to work. Doing ethnography. But now i wasn’t in an isolated village. I was surrounded by alien colleagues who kept asking me what I was doing and how I was doing it, and I didn’t have the words to tell them because anthropology hadn't provided them.

So for decades I tried to find the words. I wrote some books and articles, gave talks a lot, taught “methodology,” a rare event in anthropology departments back then. It launched me into a peculiar space, because most of what I did was with audiences who weren’t in anthropology departments. And, to make things worse, the colleagues I did find who did something as weird as ethnography with U.S. narcotic addicts—they called it “ethnography," too—were mostly from sociology, not anthropology.

All well and good.

Recently “ethnography” is in the news. Alice Goffman’s book about black life in Philly, On The Run, made it so. She’s Erve Goffman’s daughter, he being one of the reasons--though even more so the work of Howie Becker--that the few people who talked about “ethnography” in U.S. addict research were mostly sociologists. But even before her book appeared, the term surfaced in many, many different disciplines and professions, in academic and professional and practical publications. It is sometimes linked to, or differentiated from, or equated with other words like grounded theory and qualitative research and phenomenology, or user experience and design research. It’s kind of a mess, to tell you the truth, interesting, but a mess.

Lately the mess has inspired many colleagues in anthropology to react, a few with the old “how dare you, this is ours” tone of disciplinary voices when an internal concept goes viral. No question that ethnography in fact has the longest and broadest history of discipline-specific use in anthropology, period. But most recent work isn’t like that. Carol McGranahan, in Savage Minds and elsewhere http://www.teachinganthropology.org/index.php/teach_anth/article/view/421/pdf_16, exemplifies new views on the part of a younger generation teaching an even younger one. I have much to read and much to learn from them. Even from a first look it’s clear there are even newer words now that carry the conversation way beyond the awkward silence of the early days into useful angles for debate and clear communication to non-ethnographers about what we do.

I’m looking forward to the exploration. At the moment, though, I’m stuck in a recent past filled with practical work, short term projects, and elaborate NIH funded research without much face-to-face contact in it at all. None of these things fit into the set of things that I learned to call “ethnography.” In fact I made a point in one article for an organization journal of calling it “the ethnographic part of the mix,” not a phrase I’m happy with now. Yet I didn't just stop thinking like an ethnographer when I did them.

We used to talk about an “anthropological perspective,” though no one described it well in the halls of Kroeber in the late 60s. What with the clouds of tear gas and marijuana smoke and the incoherent “faculty parade” seminar, it was hard to concentrate. But in more recent years, in those "non-ethnographic" projects since I left academia, I would look at a problem in a way that caused other people to see it differently, something that often got me either hired or fired on the spot. It would be great to take personal credit for it, but I always felt like it was something out of ANTH 101. I sure as hell wasn’t doing “ethnography.” Maybe it was anthropology without the old research model?

Nowadays I think of “ethnography” as one possible instantiation of an "anthropological perspective" the one that was traditionally the academic research mode, the one that we came to think was the only way to do anthropology. But recent experience has taught me that there are many many other possible instantiations besides just that one. The general anthropological perspective, wherever I've used it, produces different views of any situation involving humans. What I’m most interested in now is better understanding that perspective. What are its fundamentals and what are the parameters that give it different shapes in different contexts where anthropologists work—everything from a single meeting to a multi-year research project.

There are many more questions to ask here, such as, is the perspective modular? That is, do you need graduate training in anthropology to acquire and use it? My sociologist colleagues who did ethnography in the early drug days used to complain about anthropology. After all, they would say, we come from the same tradition of German phenomenology as you. As of now I kind of think that the anthropological perspective is so entangled with its hundred plus year history, give or take, that it’s rhizome-like. You can’t pull up the plant without tearing up a lot of soil. If that's true, it means anthropological ethnography is different from other kinds. But it means more than that. It means doing anthropology in whatever way you do it will be different in similar ways.

We’ll see. The folks at Savage Minds, unless they’ve come to their senses and changed their minds, will let me toss out a few blogs in early November, so I’ll think about this and write more then. In the meantime, it’s interesting to have watched this long wave of ethnography wax and wane, both in anthropology and in the popular imagination. We’re definitely in another wax phase. The anthropological perspective, I’m betting, will stay the same, but the moon will change its shape.

New at the top of the column to the left is a blog that Savage Minds published, some thoughts about Baltimore where I worked for years. Along with that is a review I did of an edited book called The Social Life of Water with chapters by anthropologists working on the topic. It will appear in an e-journal called Water Alternatives. I’m thinking blogs and reviews are a good place to aim the writing, at least for now.

Life continues to be interesting.
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